DENVER — Watching the Super Wild Card Round play out, it became clear that coaching matters.
Brian Dabol, not interviewed by the Broncos because it was believed he was always going to the New York Giants, created an identity in one season. The Giants are made in his image — tough, physical and daring. On his third-string quarterback, Mike McDaniel helped steer the Dolphins to 31 points. He never met with the Broncos, but the Vikings' Kevin O'Connell did. He delivered 11 one-score victories, an NFL record as the Broncos mastered the art of losing close games.
The Broncos have reached halftime of their coaching search, interviewing Michigan's Jim Harbaugh virtually for two hours, and former Colts coach Jim Caldwell, defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and ex-Stanford boss David Shaw in person. The process resumes on Tuesday with interviews with former Saints coach Sean Payton and Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris followed by San Francisco's DeMeco Ryans on Thursday and the Cowboys' defensive boss Dan Quinn on Friday.
Monday brought a twist.
Considered a strong candidate, Harbaugh is staying at Michigan. School president Santa Ono tweeted Monday afternoon, "I just got off the phone with Coach Harbaugh and Jim shared with me the great news that he is going to remain as the Head Coach of the Michigan Wolverines. That is fantastic news that I have communicated to our Athletic Director Warde Manuel."
Harbaugh was considered a serious candidate for the Broncos. CEO Greg Penner has known Harbaugh since he was hired by Stanford. And he checked all the boxes mentioned by Penner after firing Nathaniel Hackett 15 games into his first season: accountability, discipline and an offensive identity. Harbaugh is no longer in mix, sharpening the focus on Payton and Quinn.
During his weekly TV appearance on The Herd, Payton showed surprising candor about the compensation to the Saints for his services, and the purpose of these interviews. Payton is scheduled to meet with Denver, Houston and Carolina this week, with the latter in New York with Panthers owner David Tepper. Arizona has also requested permission to talk with him.
So what would it take to get Payton from the Saints?
"Look, I think each team would be a little different. (Saints general manager) Mickey Loomis and I have talked already about it. I think ultimately the compensation for the Saints would be a mid or later first-round pick. Now, we can arrive at that at a lot of different ways. I think Denver has a pick back when they traded Chubb. It’s the 49ers pick. So they have that," said Payton, who believes an identity for be created "immediately" for a team.
"Each team has different ammo and pick selections. It could be a future one where have to throw in something. I say this because I know Mickey well and I heard him talk the other day, and he was right on, and I think I am too. He has a job to do. He will get the right compensation. I am sure the team if it gets that far, it would probably be a mid-to late first-round pick."
The Broncos' traded away their first rounder in the Russell Wilson deal, but brought one back when shipping Chubb to the Dolphins at the deadline. The Broncos are aware of the draft pick parameters for Payton. While Houston has been among the league's worst teams, Payton talked favorably of the Texans, saying he has familiarity with the general manager and ownership group, and they "have really good draft capital, really good," and play in a winnable division.
Payton, 59, insisted the most important component in choosing a team remains the front office — the general manager, and, specifically, ownership. This is why the Broncos cannot be ruled out. They have ownership stability, and the Penner-Walton group is the richest in the league with Penner spearheading this search with assistance from wife Carrie Walton-Penner, Condoleezza Rice and general manager George Paton.
“It starts with ownership. Look, finding both, if the quarterback is there, it's probably a team that’s playing well, generally speaking. The teams that have openings, I am not going to say are broken, but they’ve had problems. That’s why there is an opening. I think that element is critical, the ownership," Payton said. "I hope that is not looked at as an indictment of certain teams. There are a number of teams. ... it’s hard to win in this league and even harder to win in this league if there are internal problems before you even play an opponent."
The gravitas of Payton's resume comes through when he talks about this process. He clearly wants teams to sell him on their organization as much as he's selling them.
"Each team — there would be pros and cons. That’s the significance of the upcoming week or two," Payton said. "Meeting some individuals, asking some questions, maybe some difficult questions, and trying to get answers so we are not having difficult questions when you have already taken the job."
I now believe the Broncos' next coach will be either Payton and Quinn. They bring experience, a track record of winning and have been to a Super Bowl and, in Payton's case, won one.
Quinn finished second to Hackett in Denver a year ago when the interview won out over the resume. If the Broncos don't land Payton, Quinn becomes a likely favorite. And depending on how the interview goes, he might be the favorite. If they miss on both, will that shift attention to Jim Caldwell, David Shaw or Raheem Morris? Will the Broncos have to be more open-minded about a first-time head coach like their Evero?
Clarity should begin to emerge with potential finalists by the weekend or early next week.